The most common turtle kept in Australia is the Eastern Longnecked Turtle. These turtles are often sold as “penny turtles”, when they are very young and quite small (about 4 cm across). It is important that you realise that these turtles may live for up to 40 years, and grow to the size of a dinner plate.
It is also important to realise that there are significant differences between turtles kept in Australia and tortoises kept overseas. Australian turtles are semi-aquatic and carnivorous; tortoises (which are not found in Australia) are terrestrial and herbivorous. Husbandry and diet of Australian turtles are very different from what is recommended by many American or European sources.
If you have a small turtle it may need to be kept indoors to protect it from predators. All but the largest turtles can be kept in an aquarium approximately 1 metre long. Cover the floor with large gravel, sloped upwards at one end so that a dry basking area is available. Large flat rocks at this end can also help. It is important that your turtle be able to get out of the water when it wants. Add de-chlorinated water to a depth that is greater than the turtle is wide it must be able to roll over completely without getting caught on the bottom.
A water filter and a heater are essential. Your local aquarium can give you good advice on what size filters and heaters you will need.
Water quality must be strictly maintained. The pH needs to be kept between 7.4 – 8.0, and so a buffer may be needed. The water temperature should be maintained at 18 – 21 deg. C. Change 25% of the water every week. If you have hard or acidic water, you may need to add 1 teaspoon of marine salt mix per 10 litres at each change.
Turtles need a defined day/night cycle. This can be provided by a white incandescent light set at one end of the tank, which will also provide a temperature gradient in the tank. (25 deg. – 28 deg. C at the hottest end). Lights should be turned on and off at times corresponding to the day length outside. UVB radiation is essential, and can be provided by special UV lights for reptiles, or by allowing access to direct, unfiltered sunshine for 30 minutes each day.
Feed your turtle 3-5 times weekly, with 5~10 bite sized pieces of food each time. Turtles will usually only eat when they are in the water. These turtles are carnivorous but meat alone is very deficient in vitamins and minerals, and will cause severe deformities and death. Bloodworms, feeder fish, small crustaceans can be fed. ‘Marinara’ mixes, found in the seafood section of your local supermarket, can also be fed, but only after thorough soaking and rinsing to get rid of the salt. Be very wary of commercial turtle foods, as many of these are designed for tortoises or turtles found overseas, and do not meet the dietary requirements of Australian turtles. Remove uneaten food after 1 hour or, better yet, feed your turtle in another container. This helps to minimise water contamination.
Longnecked turtles are difficult to sex. The underneath of the male may be slightly concave to allow for better stability when mating.
With little doubt, nearly all disease problems of captive reptiles can be traced back to faults in management. Nutritional deficiencies, skin conditions, parasitism, reproductive disorders all of these can have their origins in management mistakes. Learning how to look after your reptiles before purchasing them is the single greatest contribution you can make towards maintaining their health. For more detailed information on keeping turtles, refer to “Care of Australian Reptiles in Captivity” by John Weigel, published by the Reptile Keepers Association, or contact your local herpetological society. There is also a series of good quality, yet inexpensive, boooks on each species available at the West Toowoomba Vet Surgery.
Each State or Territory has different regulations regarding the keeping of reptiles, and all prospective herpetologists (reptile keepers) should visit their local Parks and Wildlife office to ensure they understand fully all legal requirements.